Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2019 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The Vikings qualified for the post-season, but they finished the season just 1-4 against fellow playoff qualifiers, tied with the Bills for worst among playoff qualifiers. Their one win came against an Eagles team that only qualified because they play in the NFC East, while their losses came against the Packers twice, the Seahawks, and even the Matt Moore led Chiefs, back when Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury. Making this even more concerning is Kirk Cousins’ well-documented struggles in big games. Cousins’ 7-15 record in primetime games (6-15-1 ATS) is well known, but his record in all games against teams with a winning record is even worse. 

Dating back to his first year as a starter in 2015, in games against teams entering with a winning record, excluding any games in week 3 or earlier when a team’s record might not mean much, Cousins’ teams are just 7-21, including just 3-10 since joining the Vikings. His ATS record of 10-17-1 ATS isn’t horrendous, but he’s just 3-9-1 ATS since joining the Vikings. There isn’t much to go off in terms of Cousins’ post-season history, as this is just his 2nd career playoff start, but it’s not a stretch to say his struggles against tough opponents will probably extend into the post-season and his lack of post-season experience could also work against him, facing a quarterback/head coach duo with 14 career playoff starts together in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

In addition to having significant post-season experience, the Saints are also playing about as well as any team in the league right now. Since Drew Brees’ return from injury in week 8, the Saints rank 3rd in first down rate at 42.03% and 2nd in first down rate differential at +6.61. Their offense has been even better in recent weeks, with a 44.62% first down rate in their past 6 games and a 46.59% first down rate in their past 4 games, both best in the NFL over that stretch. 

It might seem improbable that the Saints can continue that rate going forward, but the Saints had a 43.48% first down rate last season in Brees’ 15 starts and at one point had a 45.69% first down rate through 11 games before slowing down late in the season, possibly due to an aging Drew Brees getting tired at the end of a 16-game season. This season, Brees’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the missed time seems to have him fresher at the end of the season. Now fully past the injury, Brees seems to be heating up just in time for the playoffs. 

The Saints’ defense finished just 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.04% and they lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, pair of key defensive linemen, with injury late in the season, but the Saints have more than enough on offense to compensate and they still have plenty of talent on defense. This line is pretty high at New Orleans -7.5, so there isn’t quite enough here to confidently bet on the Saints, especially since a Kirk Cousins backdoor cover seems somewhat likely, but New Orleans should be the right side.

New Orleans Saints 34 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

The Panthers have had a wild ride at quarterback this season and are now on their third quarterback of the season. Cam Newton limped through the first two games of the season with a foot injury that was worse than he let anyone know, costing them a pair of winnable games that were decided by a combined 9 points. Newton then shut himself down for the good of the team and backup Kyle Allen went on to win his next 4 games, making the Panthers look like a borderline contender going into their week 7 bye.

The wheels have fallen off for the Panthers since that bye week though, as they rank 31st in first down rate differential over that stretch at -7.20%. The offense, which ranks 21st in first down rate over that stretch at 34.99%, hasn’t been their biggest problem, as their defense has fallen from a 33.97% first down rate allowed over their first 6 games (7th in the NFL) to a 42.19% first down rate allowed over the past 9 weeks (31st in the NFL), but their offense has been carried by running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore and Allen was responsible for 18 giveaways over a 8-game stretch, leading to him being benched for 3rd round rookie Will Grier before last week’s game in Indianapolis.

Grier’s debut went about as bad as possible, as he completed 27 of 44 for 224 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 picks and led the Panthers to just a 26.76% first down rate in a 38-6 loss to the Colts, who entered last week ranking just 22nd in first down rate allowed. Grier struggled in the pre-season as well, leading to the Panthers naming Allen the backup going into the season. Grier will get another shot in the Panthers’ season finale, which isn’t a bad idea because the Panthers used a relatively high pick on him and need to evaluate him in game action, but he’s unlikely to be much better in his 2nd start, especially with top wide receiver DJ Moore out for this game after missing most of last week’s game. The defense also hasn’t gotten any better since firing head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and the team seems to have somewhat mailed it in. Overall, they rank just 30th in my roster rankings.

The Saints, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum, tied for the best record in the NFC at 12-3 with a shot at a first round bye. Making that even more impressive is the fact that quarterback Drew Brees missed close to 6 full games with injury. Backup Teddy Bridgewater was able to squeak out some wins in games in which their defense played at a high level, but their offense has been significantly better with Brees on the field this season, moving the chains at a 34.15% first down rate with Bridgewater on the field (most similar to the 24th ranked Lions on the season) and a 41.52% first down rate with Brees on the field (most similar to the 2nd ranked Chiefs on the season). 

The Saints’ offense has been especially good in recent weeks, ranking only behind the Ravens with a 43.36% first down rate over their past 6 games. Their defense took a big hit a couple weeks ago when defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport went down for the season and they’ll also be without safety Marcus Williams this week, but the Saints have more than enough offense to compensate and look like one of the top few Super Bowl contenders going into the post-season. They should be able to take care of business against a hapless Panthers team in their final post-season tune-up.

Unfortunately, the Saints are 13-point road favorites in this game, up from 10.5 on the early line a week ago. While the Saints should win this game pretty easily, there’s definitely uncertainty over whether or not they’ll play a complete enough game to cover this large spread, especially with Williams out. There’s also uncertainty in this game because, due to tiebreakers, the outcome of this game will only affect the Saints’ seeding if the Packers lose as heavy favorites to the Lions.

If the Packers win and Seahawks defeat the 49ers on Sunday Night to win the NFC West, the Saints would move into the 2nd seed in the NFC regardless of the outcome of this game because they currently have a one game lead and a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Seahawks. If the 49ers win that game, the Saints would be stuck in the 3rd seed regardless of the outcome of this game because the 49ers have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. 

Saints head coach Sean Payton has said he will treat this as a real game, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pull his starters in the 2nd half if the Packers are up big on the Lions because that will render this game meaningless. That would allow the Panthers to potentially get a backdoor cover even if they get dominated when the Saints’ starters are in the game. For that reason, I’m taking the Panthers, but this is a no confidence pick because of all the uncertainty.

New Orleans Saints 31 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina +13

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-3) at Tennessee Titans (8-6)

Since turning to backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill in week 7, the Titans rank 5th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +4.37%. They are 6-2 over that stretch, after starting 2-4, with their only losses coming in games against the Panthers and Texans that they easily could have won if a few snaps went differently. Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team either, as the Titans’ defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 24th in first down rate differential at 37.28%, after ranking 4th at 30.93% through the first 6 games of the season, and 4th at 32.77% in 2018. The offense, which ranks 2nd in first down rate at 42.18% since Tannehill became the starter, has carried this team, after ranking 26th at 32.69% through the first 6 games of the season, and 24th at 34.12% in 2018. 

That being said, the Titans offense is unlikely to be quite this good going forward. They have talent around the quarterback position and Tannehill has proven he can be a capable starter, but it’s unlikely he has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league. It would be reasonable to expect regression from him going forward, which the defense will need to compensate for. Unfortunately, their defense remains banged up, with edge defender Cameron Wake and cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler still out and defensive end Jeffery Simmons possibly joining them after missing practice on Friday with a lingering knee issue.

The Titans are still a competitive opponent, but we’re not getting the line value with them that we were a few weeks ago. With a dominant Saints team coming to town, the Titans are only 2.5-point home underdogs. The Saints lost a pair of key defensive linemen in their loss to the 49ers a couple weeks ago, with Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins done for the year, and their defense ranks just 35.78% in first down rate allowed at 17th even with Davenport and Rankins playing most of the season, but their offense is definitely good enough to compensate. 

They have a 41.41% first down rate when Brees is on the field, which would be second best in the NFL on the season, and that arguably understates how good their offense will be going forward. They had a 43.48% first down rate differential in Brees’ starts last season and have been even better than that in recent weeks, with a 45.19% first down rate over the past 4 games. We’re still getting a little bit of line value with the Titans, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -1, but we’re not getting enough line value with the Titans at +2.5 for them to be worth betting. The money line at +115 is worth a small play because the Titans odds of winning this game are close to 50/50, but this is a low confidence pick for pick ‘em purposes, unless the line moves up to a full field goal.

Final Update: Not only is Simmons out for the Titans, but running back Derrick Henry is a surprise inactive as well. Henry’s absence is obviously big, but, beyond the impact his absence will have on this team, the reasoning behind Henry being inactive is even more important to predicting this game. Due to how tiebreakers work, because this is a non-conference game, this is actually a rare case of a week 16 game not mattering at all for a potential playoff qualifier. With the Texans winning yesterday, the Titans have been eliminated from contention for a division title, but, regardless of the outcome of this game against the Saints, the Titans can still clinch a wild card berth if they beat the Texans next week and the Steelers lose one of their next two games. If the Steelers win out or the Titans lose to the Texans next week, the Titans are eliminated regardless of what happens in this non-conference matchup with the Saints. This line has skyrocketed to 3.5, but I’m really concerned about the Titans’ psyche in a meaningless game, so I’m switching this pick to New Orleans for a no confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: None

Indianapolis Colts at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-7) at New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The Saints didn’t just lose a big conference matchup against the 49ers last week. They also lost a pair of key defensive linemen for the season in Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport. The Saints are still talented enough to win the Super Bowl without them, but that’s a big blow to their defense. Both were missed badly after going down last week in a game in which the Saints allowed the 49ers to move the chains at a 49.21% rate, dropping the Saints to 17th in the league in the season with a 35.98% first down rate allowed on the season. Their offense has been better, moving the chains at a 40.31% rate when Drew Brees is in the lineup, most equivalent to the 3rd ranked Chiefs on the season. They’ll need to continue playing at a high level for this team to make a deep playoff run without Rankins and Davenport.

The Colts also have injury concerns, with top cornerback Kenny Moore out and top wide receiver TY Hilton a gametime decision after a 2-game absence, but the Colts have been missing key players all season and are arguably in better injury shape now than they’ve been in most of the season, especially if Hilton can suit up. Despite their injuries, they’ve been competitive, losing just 1 game all season by more than 7 points. 

The Colts are likely out of the playoffs at 6-7 barring a miracle, but they’ve played slightly better than their record suggests, ranking 14th in first down rate differential at +1.06%. Kicker Adam Vinatieri struggled mightily this season, making just 68.0% of his first goals and 78.6% of his extra points and costing them at least a couple games, but he’s been placed on injured reserve and replaced with Chase McLaughlin, who has a 75.0% field goal percentage and 100% extra point percentage on the season, so kicker isn’t as much of a problem anymore. 

If Vinatieri hadn’t missed very makeable field goals against the Chargers and Steelers, the Colts would be 8-5 right now and very much in the mix in the AFC South. I doubt they’d be 9 point underdogs in New Orleans in that circumstance, so with that in mind we’re getting some line value with the Colts. How much line value ultimately depends on whether or not Hilton plays and if the line moves in response. If Hilton plays and this line stays above a touchdown, I’ll likely place a bet on the Colts. I’ll probably be updating this writeup before gametime Monday night.

Final Update: Hilton is active, so the Colts are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 30 Indianapolis Colts 24

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +9

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (10-2) at New Orleans Saints (10-2)

This is one of the biggest games of the year, as it could be an NFC Championship preview and could easily end up deciding homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC when all is said and done. The 49ers have fallen to 10-2 after an 8-0 start, but both losses came by a field goal against teams that are also 10-2 and, despite those losses, the 49ers still rank 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +7.94% and 2nd since week 7 at +5.65%, only behind the red hot Ravens. 

The 49ers also haven’t been healthy in recent weeks, but they’re closer to full strength than they’ve been in a while right now. Defensive end Ronald Blair and linebacker Kwon Alexander are out for the year and safety Jaquiski Tartt is also out this week, but cornerback Akhello Witherspoon (6 games), right tackle Mike McGlinchey (4 games), tight end George Kittle (2 games), left tackle Joe Staley (9 games), safety Jimmie Ward (3 games), running back Matt Breida (3 games), and defensive end Dee Ford (2 games) are all expected to play this week after missing significant time earlier in the year. 

The 49ers are getting healthy at the right time ahead of this tough matchup. The Saints only rank 13th in first down rate differential on the season at +1.54%, but their offense was significantly worse with quarterback Drew Brees out of the lineup. With Brees on the field, the Saints have a 38.58% first down rate, which would be 6th in the NFL on the season. Their defense, meanwhile, ranks 12th in first down rate allowed on the season at 34.87%, so this is a very complete team. 

I actually have the Saints a little bit higher in my roster rankings than the 49ers, though that’s dependent on whether or not injured left tackle Terron Armstead is able to return from a 1-game absence after being limited in practice all week. My pick will be dependant on that as well. If Armstead plays, I like the Saints’ chances to win by at least a field goal at home, but I’d like the 49ers to pull the minor upset if Armstead can’t play.

Final Update: With Armstead playing, I’m switching my pick to New Orleans. This line is now 1.5 in most places, but that doesn’t matter.

New Orleans Saints 23 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -1.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-8)

Both of these teams underperformed expectations last week, with the Saints barely escaping with a last second, game winning field goal as 10-point home favorites over the Panthers and the Falcons losing at home by 13 to the Buccaneers as 4-point favorites. That’s not surprising though, as favorites tend to underperform before a short week (44% cover spot all-time). Both teams came into last week playing pretty well too. The Falcons have just three wins all season, but two of them came in upset fashion in back-to-back weeks prior to last week, with the Falcons beating the Saints and Panthers by a combined score of 55-12. The Falcons have also played better than their 3-8 record suggests, entering this game 18th in first down rate differential at 0.22%.

The Saints, meanwhile, are one of the top teams in the league, despite their upset loss to the Falcons a few weeks ago and their close call against the Panthers last week. They only rank 13th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.71%, but their offense has moved the chains at a 5.30% higher rate with Drew Brees under center rather than backup Teddy Bridgewater, so with Brees back healthy the Saints are as complete as any team in the league. They’ll be without left tackle Terron Armstead in this matchup, but still have the top spot in my roster rankings without him. 

Despite that, we’re getting some line value with the Falcons as 7-point underdogs, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -4.5. However, the Saints have added motivation to win and avenge their previous loss, while the Falcons might not be totally focused in a lost season against an opponent they’ve already beaten once. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 36-25 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s also uncertainty on the Falcons’ side with top receiver Julio Jones not practicing all week. Even if he is active, he might be less than 100% and at risk of reduced snaps or in game setbacks. The Falcons are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I wouldn’t bet on them.

New Orleans Saints 33 Atlanta Falcons 28

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +7

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-5) at New Orleans Saints (8-2)

The Saints surprisingly lost at home to the then 1-7 Falcons a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t even really close, with a final score of 26-9. However, the Falcons were better than that 1-7 record suggested, entering that game 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, and the Falcons have also since gone on to defeat the Panthers 29-3, so that loss doesn’t look so bad anymore, especially since the Saints were able to follow it up with a convincing 34-17 win in Tampa Bay last week. 

With Drew Brees back under center, the Saints are currently the top team in my roster rankings. Their defense has been solid all season, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 34.00%, and their offense has been significantly better in games started by Brees than it has been in games started by Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater led this offense to a 34.15% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 23rd ranked Panthers on the season, while Brees has led this offense to a 38.10% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 10th ranked Colts on the season. Their offense could have even more room for upside, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Brees’ starts last season. Even if this offense doesn’t improve any further, the Saints are arguably the only team in the league with both a top-10 offense and defense. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, have struggled mightily in recent weeks, with backup quarterback Kyle Allen unsurprisingly falling back to earth after a surprisingly strong start to the season. After Allen won his first 4 starts, the Panthers have lost 3 of 4, with their only win in that stretch coming against the Titans in a game they lost the first down rate battle by 3.95%, winning by 10 in a game the Titans missed 3 makeable field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. On the season, the Panthers rank just 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.59%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 22nd. With the Saints at the top of my roster rankings, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -14, so we’re getting good line value with the Saints as 10-point home favorites.

Unfortunately, the Saints are in a much worse spot than the Panthers this week, which hurts their chances of covering. While the Saints have a rematch with the Falcons in 4 days on Thanksgiving, the Panthers have arguably their easiest game of the season on deck, at home against the Redskins, a game in which they are expected to be 9-point favorites. Underdogs of a touchdown or more are 64-41 ATS since 1989 before being favorites of a touchdown or more. The Saints will be favored next week as well, but there could still be some split focus with a team that just defeated them on deck, especially before a short week (favorites cover at just a 44% rate before a short week). The Saints should still be the right side, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet on it. If this line drops and/or cornerback Marshon Lattimore is active for the Saints, I may reconsider.

New Orleans Saints 34 Carolina Panthers 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low